A Long-Range Deal for Iran’s Oil

May 24, 1951 — Walter Lippmann

The Mossadegh Project | July 12, 2022                      

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974)

Famed journalist Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was a highly influential author, editor, commentator, and co-founder of The New Republic magazine. He received two Pulitzer Prizes for his writing.

In the following edition of his syndicated newspaper column “Today and Tomorrow”, Lippmann hypothesized solutions to the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, then in its relative infancy. Insisting a British military response was out of the question, he suggested “a new partnership of equals in a mutually profitable enterprise”.

Iran's Premier Vows Fight To The End In Oil Dispute


New Approach To Iran Is Needed


It is more than likely, I should suppose, that any American who opens his mouth on the subject of Iran will soon find that he has put his foot in it. Nevertheless, we are too much involved in Iran to avoid the subject.

In one important respect the American position has improved during the past few days. The government has dealt firmly with the ugliest charge that one ally can make against another — that of thinking of betraying it for profit. It is now definitely established that American companies and American technicians will not be available to operate the British oil concessions for the Iranian government.

This act of elemental loyalty and honor was bound to cause disappointment and rage in Teheran. No doubt it goes a long way to explain the virulence with which the crowds have been incited against us.

We have now to make up our minds about the best course in a dispute which, though it is immediately one between the Iranian government and the British company, is in fact a much wider and greater controversy.

The first question, it seems to me, which we have to settle in our own minds is whether we are faced with a crisis demanding improvised emergency measures or whether this is a problem of long duration which requires great and novel measures of constructive statesmanship.

At the moment there is no crisis which demands emergency measures, that is to say the use of military force. But an emergency could arise almost any day. It would arise if British lives were in jeopardy and the Abadan refinery were threatened with physical destruction.

That presumably is what is meant by the British assurance to our government that no troops will be sent without consultation except in an extreme and sudden emergency.

This agreement between the two governments to limit the use of troops in this way is not founded merely on the fear of Soviet intervention under the 1921 treaty and upon the fact that so few troops are available.

The final and conclusive reason is that the Iranian problem cannot conceivably be solved, or even assuaged, by military intervention. The oil concession cannot be operated by the military occupation and military government of Southern Iran. That would produce the maximum of violence and the minimum of oil. It might just about blow up in a nationalist convulsion, without the intervention of a single Red soldier, the whole Western position in the Middle East.

The situation must not be approached, it seems to me, as a crisis which can be or must be resolved one way or the other within the next few weeks. It should be regarded as a phase in a long-range and large-scale development of the relations between the Asian peoples and the Western world.

Nothing that is going to happen and nothing that can be done will change the controlling elements of the situation. The first of these is that the oil of Southern Iran could not be exploited by the Soviet Union in the foreseeable future. It is about 1,000 miles over the mountains from the great refinery at Abadan to the Caucasus, some 600 miles to the Caspian Sea. The oil export of southern Iran can go only to the Western world. The danger, therefore, is not that Russia will get the oil, but that Britain and Western Europe will lose it.

However, since Iran cannot consume more than a very small part of its own oil, it follows that the Iranian Government cannot get the profit from the oil except by a mutually satisfactory transaction with the West. The Iranian government has publicly recognized this basic and decisive fact.

Another and no less permanent element of the problem is that the era of colonial relationships is in its very last stages in Asia. It was, therefore, neither wise or expedient, it seems to me, for the British government to have said in its note of May 19 that “the essential point is not the right of a sovereign power by its legislation to nationalize commercial enterprises carried on within its borders nor what is the measure of compensation it should pay for doing so; the essential point is that the Persian government in effect undertook not to exercise this right and the real issue is therefore the wrong done if a sovereign state breaks a contract which it has deliberately made.” [letter to Premier Mossadegh]

This, I am afraid, says that the Persian government contracted away its sovereign right a generation ago and that the contract is binding now and for a long time to come. That may be good law. But it is not the kind of law that can be enforced. In a continent which is in the midst of a stupendous revolution against precisely that kind of law, the British government could not have chosen weaker ground on which to seek the protection of its great and vital interests.

The strongest ground on which to protect our interests is not that of a contract renouncing sovereignty but that of a new partnership of equals in a mutually profitable enterprise. Instead of asking for negotiation on the basis of the old contract, there should be a proposal for a new settlement which, because it recognizes the new era in Iran, and of Asia to which Iran belongs, would have some good prospect of enduring.

That will call for the application to this problem of the faculties which the British people have found for their grandest achievements in the making of peace — for the Canadian, for the South African, and for the Indian settlements. They have known in these great constructions how to make loyal partners out of rebellious subjects.

Mr. Attlee [Premier Clement Attlee] is himself the architect of one of these settlements — the Indian which, for all the tragedies of the partition, is, I believe, the finest act of statesmanship of this epoch. [Indian independence in 1946]

Something of this order, conceived as greatly and carried out as magnanimously, is wanted for Iran.

Alternate titles:

The Approach to Iran
New Approach To Iran Oil Needed
Iran Problem Held a Phase Of Long-Range Development
New Long-Range Policy on Iran Can Insure Good Will
THE APPROACH TO IRAN — Partnership of Equals Best Bet for Britain
Lippmann Proposes: New Settlement With Iran

Search MohammadMossadegh.com

Related links:

Desperate Situation in Iran Calls for Action: 3 Steps Suggested | Marquis Childs, May 25, 1951

British Must Make Grim Choice In Iran | Joseph Alsop, May 23, 1951

Foreign Affairs (Middle East) | House of Commons, July 30, 1951

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

Facebook  Twitter  YouTube  Tumblr   Instagram